This year’s Tawney Dialogue was titled ‘Will the general election make any difference to the family?’ with Ann Holt, Director of Programme at the Bible Society, Elaine Storkey, philosopher, sociologist and theologian, and Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
Unfortunately, Ann Holt got the Dialogue off on a slightly strident note by criticising Ed Balls without any clear engagement with the issues she was raising. The clearest point she made was the encouragement of the use of tax breaks for certain family types, and criticising Ed Balls for describing such a policy as ‘social engineering’. Although later Holt said that she was merely advocating bringing the income of married couples in line with other household incomes, and with the tax breaks of some other European countries, it remained unclear exactly what she was advocating, and how it differs from the Thatcherite policy that disadvantaged many who didn’t fit a traditional mode of being family. It seems that Holt simply misjudged her audience.
Elaine Storkey introduced a far more interesting tone to the debate by asking the fundamental question of what a family is and which models work well. She briefly outlined the two dominant models of the family
- The modern emphasis on the autonomous person, the individualism that comes from it, and the possible social atomization and alienation that may result.
- The functionalist emphasis on the family as the building block of society, the need for the state to support the family in order to strengthen society, but this has often led to the domestic servitude of women and the pressure to continue in destructive relationships.
Storkey spoke about how debate on the family is often hampered by participants using these differing models, which makes it hardly surprising that no common ground is established. It was a pity that she left the theoretical basis there rather than exploring how we might think about family in a way to uphold the autonomy of person within a framework of strong social relationships. Rather she got a bit bogged down in statistics, which Ed Balls later proved was a field that a half-decent Secretary of State was never likely to lose. She ended by discussing the unhelpfulness of sexual-identity politics, where people are categorized rather than treated as individuals. However, the existence of such identity politics is to make sure that minorities are acknowledged and not hidden away or ignored; we still live in a world where the white, heterosexual male is the default of generic personhood.
Pleasant surprise is probably the best description of how I received Ed Balls’s participation in the Dialogue. He didn’t do a set piece, and happily got stuck into debate. Although he felt it necessary to give us too many personal anecdotes, he brought a lot of good material to the debate. Balls spoke about how most grandparents are not pensioners and how most single parents are early middle-aged, demonstrating our need to break through some very basic assumptions that are made about the family. He also spoke about how, when statistics take age and wealth into account, marriage is not the decisive factor for good child-rearing, but strong and stable relationships are. His advocacy of the child at the heart of government policy was clearly heart-felt, as was his support for schools and Sure Start Children’s Centres as being the front line of the government’s support for children and their families. I am massively biased on this, but I can see a future of family-friendly policy under Ed Balls as far more constructive than the plans of Michael Gove, his shadow, to introduce a school voucher system that will intensify the ugly battle for school places and syphon public funds into private-sector schools, topped off with David Cameron’s stated desire to tinker with tax breaks based on a traditional family model.